Hostile Intention

From The Incidental Economist:

How might this play out in our homes, in our churches, or in our work place?

Dodge and others have explored ways that individuals vary in their responses to such ambiguous signals and situations. One striking finding has obvious implications for youth violence prevention. Aggression-prone youth are systematically more likely to interpret others’ ambiguous behaviors as more hostile than these really are.

Hostile intention attribution bias is obviously dangerous when two frightened and pumped 17-year-olds exchange words. It is equally dangerous, though the consequences play out more slowly, when youth interact with teachers or other authority figures. My friend Tony DiVittorio of Youth Guidance tells a story about what happens when a student arrives late to class (again).  The teacher gets in the student’s face and sends him to detention. The kid concludes that the teacher hates him. He curses her out, storms out of the classroom, punches a locker, and makes her perceived hostility into a self-fulfilling prophesy. Had this student interpreted his teacher’s unspoken attitudes and intentions differently, he might have acted differently, and thus obtained a different result….

Lest you think attribution restructuring is only important for at-risk parents who fit some negative stereotype, let me conclude with a simple story about caretaking for someone with a challenging disability.

When my intellectually-disabled brother-in-law Vincent moved into our home, he displayed a number of behaviors that I sought to control. He displayed one such behavior his entire life. When he becomes nervous or angry, he sometimes bites the base of his hand in a way I found quite disturbing. I reacted badly to this upsetting behavior.  I would sometimes double-down on whatever I was doing that was upsetting him, under the assumption he was being defiant.

Once he was accurately diagnosed with fragile X syndrome, I learned that he wasn’t being defiant. Hand-biting is actually a characteristic behavior associated with the disorder. The best response was the opposite of what I was doing. I needed to back off, and to give Vincent a chance to regroup himself. This simple knowledge of the disorder made me less angry. Maybe because it gave me permission to stop trying to change a deeply-rooted behavior, it made it easier for me to respond more humanely and effectively.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • phil_style

    Sounds like a lesson in de-escalation.

    Same goes for many human conflicts. The “aggressor” always sees themselves as the aggrieved party, responding to some kind of threat.
    Of course, both parties in conflict (conflict being where two or more parties engeg in violence against each other) are usually doing the same thing, that is, mirroring each other’s escalations.

    There is only one way out of conflict. De-escalation.
    But of course, we knew that didn’t we… (Matthew 5:39)

  • MatthewS

    I sometimes wonder what the difference is between the times we are supposed to de-escalate and the times it is right and proper to take a strong stand. Of course, those are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but still – it does seem there are times to come out swinging in one way or another. Jesus spent the majority of the time not escalating the situation but he hardly de-escalated against the religious oppressors.

    Perhaps this post gets at a way to think of it, that you intentionally try to de-escalate and give the other person a chance to respond to that. Having given that a fair chance, if you get the sense that they are interested only in the attack, perhaps that is the dividing line…

    (I’m thinking of times when abusive parents or spouses maintain an attack on someone even after the person has move out, or a predatory lawsuit, to name 2 examples)

  • Amanda B.

    This is so important. It seems to me that the core of the matter boils down largely to being able to force ourselves to think critically about what we do and don’t know about any given situation. Really, all we can know for sure in an interpersonal conflict is what the other person said and did, not what made them act that way. To find that out, we need to ask–in humility–and be prepared to see our own blind spots or careless actions.

    I think this is part of love hoping all things and believing all things (1Cor 13). We don’t ever want to assume that somebody is acting in pure malice. Of course, it is possible for anyone to be nasty and vindictive, being absolutely closed to reconciliation, but we never want to arrive at that conclusion without really hard evidence that it’s the case.


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